Why Did the Luftwaffe Struggle to Fight at Sea?

Why Did the Luftwaffe Struggle to Fight at Sea?

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The Luftwaffe became active in most maritime regions in which the Wehrmacht was fighting; from the Arctic to Black Seas, with even a token floatplane presence in the Indian Ocean. Their strategy, however, was ill-defined from before the war had even begun.

Lacking priority

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It is fair to say that in the years leading to war the German naval staff saw little value in a fleet air arm beyond reconnaissance for major surface units while the Reich Air Ministry fixated on building an air force capable of supporting war on land.

Between these two factions, a potential maritime aerial strike force was virtually stillborn by September 1939.

To compound problems for those that lobbied fiercely for an independent naval air service, the vainglorious Göring worked tirelessly to bring everything that flew within Germany under his control; his personal animosity towards the aristocratic head of the Reichsmarine, Erich Raeder, compounding an already bitter struggle for ownership of Germany’s aerial forces.

The compromise became the Küstenflieger, manned by Luftwaffe aircrew with Kriegsmarine observers; the latter’s naval training including the intricacies of nautical navigation.

Meagre success

Achievements of the Luftwaffe’s maritime air unit AS/88 in the Spanish Civil War were judged meagre at best and highlighted the technical imperfections of the F5 aerial torpedo. Somewhat bizarrely, instead of providing an impetus to improving this torpedo design, research was brought to a virtual standstill.

The torpedo was thought costly and inefficient — its task able to be accomplished with traditional bombs. The Luftwaffe had learned the value of close air support for ground units and, with the death of the farsighted Generalleutnant Walther Wever in 1936, development of long-range bombers capable of supporting naval operations was de-prioritised in favour of short and medium range aircraft that would shape the Blitzkrieg.

The Heinkel He 59 biplane.


The Luftwaffe entered the war with its main multi-purpose maritime bomber the obsolete Heinkel He 59 biplane. The improved He 115 monoplane was slowly entering service, though unable to use the F5 torpedo as its slowest speed exceeded the maximum launching velocity for this imperfect weapon.

Maritime units were grouped into Küstenfliegergruppen, under tactical Kriegsmarine control though never detached from the Luftwaffe and therefore subject to a form of ‘joint control’. Meanwhile, Luftwaffe Kampfgeschwader 26 (Heinkel He 111) and KG 30 (Junkers Ju 88) were grouped into 10. Fliegerdivision (later X.Fliegerkorps) which would also be dedicated primarily to maritime operations.

An ineffective outcome

Initial Küstenflieger missions against Poland used the maritime specialists as traditional bombers, yielding poor results and wasting the lives of valuable aircrew.

With the entry of Britain and France into the war on 3 September, the Küstenflieger were redirected to the North Sea, engaged in contraband interception, reconnaissance and its first anti-shipping missions. Local cooperation between regional Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine commands began to yield beneficial reconnaissance results.

At its pinnacle an opportunistic strike against Royal Navy capital ships on 25 September that had been shadowed by Küstenflieger Dornier flying boats brought KG 26 and KG 30 into action. The resulting attack inflicted no damage on the Royal Navy, though result-hungry German propaganda claimed HMS Ark Royal sunk.

Bombs falling astern of HMS ARK ROYAL during an attack by Italian aircraft during the Battle of Cape Spartivento.

Göring’s immediate response at this apparent success was to order all long-range reconnaissance over the North Sea be henceforth handled by land-based Staffeln of Luftflotte 2.

Corresponding frequent navigational mistakes by Luftwaffe observers not fully versed in the vagaries of nautical navigation resulted in an increased number of erroneous sighting reports and requiring verification by skilled observers aboard Küstenflieger aircraft.

This useless waste of resources in duplicated and fruitless missions disastrously undermined Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine cooperation.

Losing the initiative

Focke-Wulf Fw 200 C Condor (Credit: Bundesarchiv / CC).

Luftwaffe maritime strategy thereafter remained one of reaction rather than initiative. The introduction of long-range Focke Wulf Fw 200 ‘Condor’ aircraft to the newly formed KG 40 under the control of Fliegerführer Atlantik added a potentially powerful reconnaissance aircraft to the burgeoning U-boat conflict.

However, this was hamstrung by the weaknesses of this converted airliner, deficiencies in Luftwaffe nautical skills and repeated unwillingness to ‘shadow’ enemy shipping and transmit beacons for U-boats, but rather to attack for the benefit of the Luftwaffe’s reputation.

Furthermore, as was the case with much of the Wehrmacht, there were never enough aircraft to fulfil requirements.

Despite eventual advances in torpedo design and the application of several Kampfgeschwader to this role, torpedo bomber victories were relatively few with one or two notable convoy operations — such as against PQ17 — that sometimes benefited as much from Allied tactical mistakes as German response.

Impeding invasions

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Attempts to interdict Allied amphibious landings were, in the main, repeated failures, beginning with Operation Torch in 1942 through to Overlord in June 1944.

Though experiencing brief success with the introduction of radio guided missiles and glide bombs within the Mediterranean, the Luftwaffe was never able to seriously impede such invasions and countermeasures soon introduced.

The bombers themselves that were deployed were, in the main, upgrades of models with which the Luftwaffe had begun the war, or fresh designs such as the Heinkel He 177 that was troubled with flaws due to the confused nature of its development.

A torpedo is loaded on a German Heinkel He 115 seaplane.

Doomed from the start

Despite the best efforts of front-line units, the Luftwaffe was ultimately doomed from the outset of war. Its leadership was in Göring’s confused hands; a man of high intelligence and political acumen, but completely unsuited to the task.

Inter-agency competition and rivalry became the bane of every service within the Third Reich, both military and political. It is nowhere more evident than the struggle between Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine for control of maritime air power.

However, the last whisper of Raeder’s original master plan for an independent naval air arm was finally silenced in October 1944 when the final remnant — Küstenfliegergruppe 406 — was disbanded.

Nonetheless, the Luftwaffe continued to mount maritime operations until the dying days of the Third Reich despite the horrendous odds stacked against them. The foibles of their leadership had doomed them to failure from the opening days of the Second World War.

Lawrence Paterson is a well-known author of German naval operations in World War Two. He has a long-standing interest in the Kriegsmarine. His latest book, Eagles over the Sea 1935–1942, was published on 7 August 2019, by Pen and Sword Publishing.

The onset of the Revolution found the colonies with no real naval forces but with a large maritime population and many merchant vessels employed in domestic and foreign trade. That merchant service was familiar not only with the sea but also with warfare. Colonial ships and seamen had taken part in the British naval expeditions against Cartagena, Spain, and Louisburg, Nova Scotia, during the nine years of war between Britain and France from 1754 to 1763. Colonists also had engaged in privateering during the French and Indian War, the American phase of that broader conflict (the European phase of which was known as the Seven Years’ War).

The importance of sea power was recognized early. In October 1775 the Continental Congress authorized the creation of the Continental Navy and established the Marine Corps in November. The navy, taking its direction from the naval and marine committees of the Congress, was only occasionally effective. In 1776 it had 27 ships against Britain’s 270. By the end of the war, the British total had risen close to 500, and the American total had dwindled to 20. Many of the best seamen available had gone off privateering, and Continental Navy commanders and crews both suffered from a lack of training and discipline.

Land campaigns to 1778

Americans fought the war on land with essentially two types of organization: the Continental (national) Army and the state militias. The total number of the former provided by quotas from the states throughout the conflict was 231,771 men, and the militias totaled 164,087. At any given time, however, the American forces seldom numbered over 20,000 in 1781 there were only about 29,000 insurgents under arms throughout the country. The war was therefore one fought by small field armies. Militias, poorly disciplined and with elected officers, were summoned for periods usually not exceeding three months. The terms of Continental Army service were only gradually increased from one to three years, and not even bounties and the offer of land kept the army up to strength. Reasons for the difficulty in maintaining an adequate Continental force included the colonists’ traditional antipathy toward regular armies, the objections of farmers to being away from their fields, the competition of the states with the Continental Congress to keep men in the militia, and the wretched and uncertain pay in a period of inflation.

By contrast, the British army was a reliable steady force of professionals. Since it numbered only about 42,000, heavy recruiting programs were introduced. Many of the enlisted men were farm boys, as were most of the Americans. Others were unemployed persons from the urban slums. Still others joined the army to escape fines or imprisonment. The great majority became efficient soldiers as a result of sound training and ferocious discipline. The officers were drawn largely from the gentry and the aristocracy and obtained their commissions and promotions by purchase. Though they received no formal training, they were not so dependent on a book knowledge of military tactics as were many of the Americans. British generals, however, tended toward a lack of imagination and initiative, while those who demonstrated such qualities often were rash.

Because troops were few and conscription unknown, the British government, following a traditional policy, purchased about 30,000 troops from various German princes. The Lensgreve (landgrave) of Hesse furnished approximately three-fifths of that total. Few acts by the crown roused so much antagonism in America as that use of foreign mercenaries.

Why did the Germans suffer a defeat at Kursk in 1943?

The Battle of Kursk took place in July 1943 and was one of the largest and most important battles fought on the Eastern Front during World War II. Kursk was the largest tank battle in history, and it was the last attempt by the German army to slow down the Soviet Military. Kursk was the last throw of the dice for Germany on the Eastern Front. The failure of the German offensive at Kursk dealt a severe blow to the army. After the battle, Germany adopted a defensive posture on the Eastern Front. Why did Germany fail to achieve their objectives at the Battle of Kursk?


Germany had invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. At first, they had driven the Red Army back to the gates of Moscow. However, winter and a Soviet counterattack prevented them from capturing Moscow. [1] The following year, the Germans launched an offensive in the south of Russia aimed at the oil fields in the Caucuses. Hitler diverted forces to take Stalingrad. The Battle of Stalingrad reversed the tide of the war for Germany and resulted in a catastrophic mistake. The entire German 6th army was annihilated at Stalingrad during the winter of 1943-1943.

The Germans managed to stabilize the situation after Stalingrad and had even managed to inflict a heavy defeat on the Soviets at Kharkov. By the spring of 1943, the German’s felt confident enough to plan for another offensive in the East even though they were still losing ground to the Soviets. [2] Germany wanted to prove to the Soviets and the western allies that they were not fatally weakened after Stalingrad. [3] . By the summer of 1943, the Russians had advanced west and retaken territory in Ukraine. Hitler was determined to reverse the recent Soviet gains and to push them back to the east. On the Eastern Front, there was a bulge in the front line between Orel and Kharkov. Right at the heart of this bulge was Kursk. This bulge meant that the Soviets could outflank the Germans, which could lead to the collapse of their front line. The German High Command was very concerned about the bulge and believed that it needed to be removed. The German generals decided to destroy the bulge in their lines. They intended to cut-off the Soviet Troops occupying the bulge and inflict a devastating defeat on the Soviet Union. [4] Hitler backed the plan in April 1943, and he expected the ‘’victory at Kursk would be a beacon for the whole world.” [5]

Why Kursk?

A successful German offensive would have greatly improved Germany’s strategic position on the Eastern Front. The Germans believed that the Soviet leadership had become increasingly disenchanted with their western Allies [6] . Despite constant demands, the British and the Americans had failed to open a ‘second front’ in western Europe. If the German forces inflicted a devastating defeat on Stalin’s armies, the Soviets would be more likely to enter into peace negotiations with the Germans and end their alliance with Britain and the United States. This could have allowed the Germans to keep many of their gains in the east and concentrate on their war with the western allies. Despite the recent setbacks on the Eastern Front and in North Africa, Germany remained confident that they could turn the tide of war back in their favor. The Germans believed that their army was better armed in 1943 than at any other time. Hitler had appointed Albert Speer as head of the armaments industry, and he had dramatically increased production.

Germany, despite constant air attacks and limited natural resources, increased their number of munitions and weapons, greatly [7] . In 1943 the German armaments sector produced almost 12,000 tanks and had increased by 100% the number of planes made by manufacturers. Not only did the German industrial sector produce more of everything, but also they produced more advanced weaponry. The Germans had developed new tanks such as the Tiger, King Tiger, and the Panther tanks. The Luftwaffe (German air force) had the new Fokker-Wolfe 190A fighter and the Herschel 129 [8] . Since the loss of North Africa, the Germans could concentrate most of their army on the Eastern Front. The allies' failure to open up a second front allowed Hitler to station two-thirds of the German Army in Russia by the Spring of 1943. However, the new weapons and extra manpower caused the German High Command to engage in over-optimistic planning. Their new weaponry assumed that they could inflict a serious defeat on Stalin and led them to underestimate their enemy.

German failures before the Battle

Hitler decreed that “there must be no failure” during Operation Citadel. After Stalingrad's intelligence failures, the German High Command collected all the intelligence that they could get. Reconnaissance planes photographed all the defensive systems that the Soviets had established in the Kursk and Oriel bulge. Despite the vast efforts spent on this intelligence gathering information, the Germans failed to establish the area's Russian forces' size. Even though the Germans had acquired a great deal of information, they misinterpreted it. [9] This misled the Germans into overestimating their chances of success in the coming offensive.

However, Russia’s military leaders had suspected that there would be an attack on the bulge between Kursk and Oriel. They believed that the Germans desperately needed to remove the bulge at Kursk. Soviet intelligence was excellent- they had first-hand accounts of German armor sent to the Oriel-Kharkov region. [10] The Soviets had even captured some German officers who during interrogation divulged that the offensive would be in the Kursk area. They even gave the date of the coming German attack. The better Soviet intelligence meant that they had a decided advantage even before the battle had started. [11]

German and Russian Strategies

Hitler was not his overbearing self during the planning stages of the Battle of Kursk. He left the planning to his generals, and they develop a highly detailed plan. Operation Citadel called for a tactic known as the double envelopment. This would allow the Germans to surround the Soviet defenders in Eastern Europe's bulge and cut them off from the Soviet Union. General Walter Model's 9th would attack the north of the bulge, driving south to Kursk's east and seize the railway. securing the rail line from Soviet attack [12] . A Panzer Army, led by General Hoth, would attack the southern part of the salient. This force was expected to drive north and meet Model at Kursk and achieve the objective of cutting off the Soviet units.

The Soviets, well-aware that an attack was coming, decided to adopt a defensive strategy. The Stavka, the Soviet High Command, placed a huge number of men and equipment in the Oriel-Kursk region. Russian and Ukrainian civilians were conscripted to build defenses in the area. They laid hundreds of thousands of mines and dug miles of trenches and anti-tank traps. The Red Army also had a huge force of reserves under the command of Marshall Zhukov. They were to reinforce any area where the Germans threatened to break through and launch a counterattack. The Germans had failed to take in the defensive preparations of the Soviets and placed too much faith in their new weapons. [13]

Battle of Kursk

On the eve of the Battle of Kursk, the Germans had almost ¾ quarters of a million men, 3000 tanks, and some 10,000 artillery pieces. The Red Army had almost 2 million men, 5000 tanks, and 20,000 heavy guns. The Germans had anticipated that they would be outnumbered but believed that their superiority in training and equipment would allow them to succeed. On the night of July 5th, to pre-empt the attack, the Russians launched a massive artillery bombardment. This initially threw the Germans into disarray, and it delayed the attack for three hours. The Germans attacked in the early morning. They attacked the north of the salient with 500 tanks. After 24 hours, they had lost thousands of men and many tanks. [14]

Germany started its attack at dawn with an artillery barrage. A tank and infantry attack started at 05.30 once air cover had arrived. The main thrust contained 500 tanks heavy tanks at the front, supported by medium ones behind with infantry behind these. They only gained a few miles. [15] The German attack was ferocious, but it had not been successful. The stubborn Red Army defenders resisted repeated German attacks. [16] One German armored division had lost two-thirds of its tanks. The Soviets quickly adapted to the threats posed by the new tanks, even the fearsome Tiger tanks. The Soviet gunners learned to aim at the lightly armored sides of the tank. The German faith in their wonder weapons was misplaced, which led them to make poor decisions and suffer unnecessary casualties. The German Generals continued with the offensive.

Some 50th kilometers south of Kursk, the greatest tank battle in WW II took place. The Germans tried to capture Kursk with 1,5000 tanks on July 12th. Despite infecting heavy losses on the Red Army tank formations, they did not advance to Kursk. Within two weeks, the Germans had been pushed back to where they had started on the Kursk salient's southern side. However, the divisions under the Model had made real progress. [17] The Soviet overall-chief Marshall Zhukov ordered a counter-attack, which pushed Model’s units back some 45 miles. General Model was forced to retreat to the Hagen Line, an existing line of defense. He persuaded Hitler to allow the German forces to end the offensive and retreat before they became encircled by the Red army and avoid another Stalingrad. The Germans, during their retreat, came under constant attack from partisans. They destroyed many miles of railway lines and caused massive disruption in the German rear. The Soviets took advantage of the German retreat to capture the city of Kharkov. The liberation of this city is usually seen as the end of the Battle of Kursk. [18]

Air Battle over Kursk

One aspect of the Battle that historians often overlooked was the aerial battle between the Luftwaffe and the Soviet air force [19] . By 1943, the Luftwaffe position had started to weaken, and it was beginning to lose its traditional air superiority over the Soviet Air Force. This shift was Due to the dramatic diversions of resources to the western front west. The Luftwaffe was forced to defend German cities from the intense Allied bombing campaign. The Luftwaffe could only achieve air superiority in local areas.

By 1943, less than 40% of the Luftwaffe was stationed on the Eastern Front. During the Battle of Kursk, it was expected by the German High Command that the Luftwaffe would play a key role in the battle. They were persuaded of this by the Luftwaffe’s new planes, which they believed to be superior to the Russian planes. [20] . However, the Luftwaffe was unable to achieve air superiority, and as the battle progressed, it lost the initiative to the Soviet Air force. This meant that the Germans could not use the Luftwaffe to secure its objectives at Kursk. Indeed, in the closing days of the battle, the Russian air force came to control the skies and inflict terrible damage on the retreating Germans tanks and vehicles for the first time in the Eastern Front war. The German military’s failure to secure air superiority over Kursk was one of the main reasons why the battle resulted in a German defeat. This was another example of the unrealistic expectations of the German army before the Battle of Kursk.

Results of the Battle of Kursk

Both sides at the Battle for Kursk suffered terrible casualties. The Germans are estimated to have lost some 200,000 men killed or missing in action. They lost some 2000 tanks and thousands of pieces of artillery. They also lost some 700 planes. The Soviets lost some 250,000 men, killed or missing in action. Some 6000 tanks [21] , 3000 guns, and one thousand planes are lost during the battle. The Soviets had the capacity to replace the men and equipment, but the Germans could not replace the losses. This weakened their position on the Eastern Front.

The Battle of Kursk was the last major offensive they launched in Russia. The material damage done to the German Army was massive. The campaign was a strategic Soviet success, although they suffered more casualties. For the first time, a major German offensive had been stopped before achieving a breakthrough [22] . The defeat at Kursk was to prove in many ways more decisive than Stalingrad. Winston Churchill argued that the defeat at Kursk ‘heralded the downfall of the German army on the Eastern Front’ [23]


The Battle of Kursk was a turning point in the war on the Eastern Front. The Germans had failed to reach their objectives, and they had suffered huge losses. The German air force, after the battle, began to lose control of the skies. After Kursk, the Germans in the East were on the defensive. They had lost the battle for several reasons, over-optimistic planning, a failure to appreciate that the Soviet air force had improved, and underestimated the Soviet defenses around Kursk. Significantly, they also believed that their new weapons would earn them a victory, and this over-reliance on new and untested military technologies, such as the Tiger Tanks, played a critical role in their defeat in the most famous tank battle in history.


Before 1939, all sides operated under largely theoretical models of air warfare. Italian theorist Giulio Douhet in the 1920s summarised the faith that airmen during and after World War I developed in the efficacy of strategic bombing. Many said it alone could win wars, [2] as "the bomber will always get through". The Americans were confident that the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber could reach targets, protected by its own weapons, and bomb, using the Norden bombsight, with "pickle barrel" accuracy. [3] Japanese aviation pioneers felt that they had developed the finest naval aviators in the world.

Germany: The Luftwaffe Edit

The Luftwaffe was and still remains today the German Air Force. The pride of Nazi Germany under its leader Hermann Göring, it learned new combat techniques in the Spanish Civil War and was seen by Adolf Hitler as the decisive strategic weapon he needed. [4] Its advanced technology and rapid growth led to exaggerated fears in the 1930s that helped to persuade the British and French into appeasement. In the war the Luftwaffe performed well in 1939–41, as its Stuka dive bombers terrified enemy infantry units. But the Luftwaffe was poorly coordinated with overall German strategy, and never ramped up to the size and scope needed in a total war, partly due to a lack of military aircraft production infrastructure for both completed airframes and powerplants when compared to either the Soviet Union or the United States. The Luftwaffe was deficient in radar technology except for their usable UHF and later VHF band airborne intercept radar designs such as the Lichtenstein and Neptun radar systems for their night fighters. The Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter did not enter service until July 1944, and the lightweight Heinkel He 162 appeared only during the last months of the air war in Europe. The Luftwaffe could not deal with Britain's increasingly lethal defensive fighter screen after the Battle of Britain, or the faster P-51 Mustang escort fighters after 1943.

When the Luftwaffe's fuel supply ran dry in 1944 due to the oil campaign of World War II, it was reduced to anti-aircraft flak roles, and many of its men were sent to infantry units. By 1944 it operated 39,000 flak batteries staffed with a million people in uniform, both men and women.

The Luftwaffe lacked the bomber forces for strategic bombing, because it did not think such bombing was worthwhile, especially following the June 3, 1936, death of General Walther Wever, the prime proponent of a strategic bomber force for the Luftwaffe. They did attempt some strategic bombing in the east with the problematic Heinkel He 177A. Their one success was destroying an airbase at Poltava Air Base, Ukraine during the Allied Operation Frantic, which housed 43 new B-17 bombers and a million tons of aviation fuel. [5]

Introduction of turbojet-powered combat aircraft, mostly with the Messerschmitt Me 262 twin-jet fighter, the Heinkel He 162 light jet fighter and the Arado Ar 234 reconnaissance-bomber was pioneered by the Luftwaffe, but the delayed period (1944–45) of their introduction – much of which was due to the lengthy development time for both the BMW 003 and Junkers Jumo 004 jet engine designs—as well as the failure to produce usable examples of their two long-developed higher-power aviation engines, the Junkers Jumo 222 multibank 24-cylinder piston engine of some 2,500 hp, and the advanced Heinkel HeS 011 turbojet of nearly 2,800 lb. of thrust, each of which were meant to power many advanced German airframe design proposals in the last years of the war—meant that they were introduced "too little, too late", as so many other advanced German aircraft designs (and indeed, many other German military weapon systems) had been during the later war years.

Although Germany's allies, especially Italy and Finland, had air forces of their own, there was very little coordination with them. Not until very late in the war did Germany share its aircraft and alternative fuel blueprints and technology with its ally Japan, resulting in the Nakajima Kikka jet fighter and the Mitsubishi Shusui rocket fighter, respectively based on the Me 262A and Me 163B—both of which, similarly, came far too late for Japan to improve its defensive aircraft systems, or to make alternative fuels and lubricants. [6]

Britain: The Royal Air Force Edit

The British had their own very well-developed theory of strategic bombing, and built the long-range bombers to implement it. [7]

Once it became clear that Germany was a threat, the RAF started on a large expansion, with many airfields being set up and the number of squadrons increased. From 42 squadrons with 800 aircraft in 1934, the RAF had reached 157 squadrons and 3,700 aircraft by 1939. [8] They combined the newly developed radar with communications centres to direct their fighter defences. Their medium bombers were capable of reaching the German industrial centre of the Ruhr, and larger bombers were under development.

The RAF underwent rapid expansion following the outbreak of war against Germany in 1939. This included the training in other Commonwealth nations (particularly Canada) of half of British and Commonwealth aircrews, some 167,000 men in all. It was the second largest in Europe. The RAF also integrated Polish and other airmen who had escaped from Hitler's Europe. In Europe, the RAF was in operational control of Commonwealth aircrews and Commonwealth squadrons although these retained some degree of independence (such as the formation of No. 6 Group RCAF to put Canadian squadrons together in a nationally identifiable unit).

The RAF had three major combat commands based in the United Kingdom: RAF Fighter Command charged with defence of the UK, RAF Bomber Command (formed 1936) which operated the bombers that would be offensive against the enemy, and RAF Coastal Command which was to protect Allied shipping and attack enemy shipping. The Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm operated land-based fighters in defence of naval establishments and carrier-based aircraft. Later in the war the RAF's fighter force was divided into two Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) for protecting the UK and the Second Tactical Air Force for ground offensive support in the North West Europe campaign.

Bomber Command participated in two areas of attack – the strategic bombing campaign against German war production, and the less well known mining of coastal waters off Germany (known as Gardening) to contain its naval operations and prevent the U-boats from freely operating against Allied shipping. In order to attack German industry by night the RAF developed navigational aids, tactics to overwhelm the German defences control system, tactics directly against German night-fighter forces, target marking techniques, many electronic aids in defence and attack, and supporting electronic warfare aircraft. The production of heavy aircraft competed with resources for the Army and the Navy, and it was a source of disagreement as to whether the effort could be more profitably expended elsewhere.

Increasingly heavy losses during the latter part of 1943 due to the reorganized Luftwaffe night fighter system (Wilde Sau tactics), and Sir Arthur Harris' costly attempts to destroy Berlin in the winter of 1943/44, led to serious doubts as to whether Bomber Command was being used to its fullest potential. In early 1944 the UK air arm was put under Eisenhower's direct control where it played a vital role in preparing the way for the Overlord Invasion. [9] [10]

Soviet Union: Soviet Air Force Edit

By the end of the war, Soviet annual aircraft production had risen sharply with annual Soviet production peaking at 40,000 aircraft in 1944. Some 157,000 aircraft were produced, of which 126,000 were combat types for the Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily or VVS (as the Soviet Union named their air arm), while the others were transports and trainers. [11] [12] The critical importance of the ground attack role in defending the Soviet Union from the Axis' Operation Barbarossa through to the final defeat of Nazi Germany with the Battle of Berlin resulted in the Soviet military aviation industry creating more examples of the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik during the war than any other military aircraft design in aviation history, with just over 36,000 examples produced. [13]

During the war the Soviets employed 7500 bombers to drop 30 million bombs on German targets, with a density that sometimes reached 100–150 tons/ sq kilometer. [14] [15]

United States: Army Air Forces Edit

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor and during the period within which the predecessor U.S. Army Air Corps became the Army Air Forces in late June 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave command of the Navy to an aviator, Admiral Ernest King, with a mandate for an aviation-oriented war in the Pacific. FDR allowed King to build up land-based naval and Marine aviation, and seize control of the long-range bombers used in antisubmarine patrols in the Atlantic. Roosevelt basically agreed with Robert A. Lovett, the civilian Assistant Secretary of War for Air, who argued, "While I don't go so far as to claim that air power alone will win the war, I do claim the war will not be won without it." [16]

Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall rejected calls for complete independence for the Air Corps, because the land forces generals and the Navy were vehemently opposed. In the compromise that was reached it was understood that after the war, the aviators would get their independence. Meanwhile, the Air Corps became the Army Air Forces (AAF) in June, 1941, combining all their personnel and units under a single commanding general, an airman. In 1942 the Army reorganized into three equal components, one of which was the AAF, which then had almost complete freedom in terms of internal administration. Thus the AAF set up its own medical service independent of the Surgeon General, its own WAC units, and its own logistics system. It had full control over the design and procurement of airplanes and related electronic gear and ordnance. Its purchasing agents controlled 15% of the nation's Gross National Product. Together with naval aviation, it recruited the best young men in the nation. General Henry H. Arnold headed the AAF. One of the first military men to fly, and the youngest colonel in World War I, he selected for the most important combat commands men who were ten years younger than their Army counterparts, including Ira Eaker (b. 1896), Jimmy Doolittle (b. 1896), Hoyt Vandenberg (b. 1899), Elwood "Pete" Queseda (b. 1904), and, youngest of them all, Curtis LeMay (b. 1906). Although a West Pointer himself, Arnold did not automatically turn to Academy men for top positions. Since he operated independent of theatre commanders, Arnold could and did move his generals around, and speedily removed underachievers. [17]

Aware of the need for engineering expertise, Arnold went outside the military and formed close liaisons with top engineers like rocket specialist Theodore von Karmen at Caltech. Arnold was given seats on the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US-British Combined Chiefs of Staff. Arnold, however, was officially Deputy Chief of [Army] Staff, so on committees he deferred to his boss, General Marshall. Thus Marshall made all the basic strategic decisions, which were worked out by his "War Plans Division" (WPD, later renamed the Operations Division). WPD's section leaders were infantrymen or engineers, with a handful of aviators in token positions. [18]

The AAF had a newly created planning division, whose advice was largely ignored by WPD. Airmen were also underrepresented in the planning divisions of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and of the Combined Chiefs. Aviators were largely shut out of the decision-making and planning process because they lacked seniority in a highly rank-conscious system. The freeze intensified demands for independence, and fueled a spirit of "proving" the superiority of air power doctrine. Because of the young, pragmatic leadership at the top, and the universal glamor accorded aviators, morale in the AAF was strikingly higher than anywhere else (except perhaps Navy aviation).

The AAF provided extensive technical training, promoted officers and enlisted faster, provided comfortable barracks and good food, and was safe, with an American government-sponsored pilot training program in place as far back as 1938, that did work in concert when necessary with the British Commonwealth's similar program within North America. The only dangerous jobs were voluntary ones as crew of fighters and bombers—or involuntary ones at jungle bases in the Southwest Pacific. Marshall, an infantryman uninterested in aviation before 1939, became a partial convert to air power and allowed the aviators more autonomy. He authorized vast spending on planes, and insisted that American forces had to have air supremacy before taking the offensive. However, he repeatedly overruled Arnold by agreeing with Roosevelt's requests in 1941–42 to send half of the new light bombers and fighters to the British and Soviets, thereby delaying the buildup of American air power. [19]

The Army's major theatre commands were given to infantrymen Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Neither had paid much attention to aviation before the war. However the air power advocate Jimmy Doolittle succeeded Eaker as 8th Air Force commander at the start of 1944. Doolittle instituted a critical change in strategic fighter tactics and the 8th Air Force bomber raids faced less and less Luftwaffe defensive fighter opposition for the rest of the war.

Offensive counter-air, to clear the way for strategic bombers and an eventually decisive cross-channel invasion, was a strategic mission led by escort fighters partnered with heavy bombers. The tactical mission, however, was the province of fighter-bombers, assisted by light and medium bombers.

American theatre commanders became air power enthusiasts, and built their strategies around the need for tactical air supremacy. MacArthur had been badly defeated in the Philippines in 1941–42 primarily because the Japanese controlled the sky. His planes were outnumbered and outclassed, his airfields shot up, his radar destroyed, his supply lines cut. His infantry never had a chance. MacArthur vowed never again. His island hopping campaign was based on the strategy of isolating Japanese strongholds while leaping past them. Each leap was determined by the range of his 5th Air Force, and the first task on securing an objective was to build an airfield to prepare for the next leap. [20] [21] Eisenhower's deputy at SHAEF was Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder who had been commander of the Allied Mediterranean Air Command when Eisenhower was in charge of Allied operations in the Mediterranean.

The Allies won battlefield air supremacy in the Pacific in 1943, and in Europe in 1944. That meant that Allied supplies and reinforcements would get through to the battlefront, but not the enemy's. It meant the Allies could concentrate their strike forces wherever they pleased, and overwhelm the enemy with a preponderance of firepower. There was a specific campaign, within the overall strategic offensive, for suppression of enemy air defences, or, specifically, Luftwaffe fighters.

Aircrew training Edit

While the Japanese began the war with a superb set of naval aviators, trained at the Misty Lagoon experimental air station, their practice, perhaps from the warrior tradition, was to keep the pilots in action until they died. The U.S. position, at least for naval aviation, was a strict rotation between sea deployments and shore duty, the latter including training replacements, personal training, and participating in doctrinal development. The U.S. strategic bombing campaign against Europe did this in principle, but relatively few crews survived the 25 missions of a rotation. On December 27, 1938, the United States had initiated the Civilian Pilot Training Program to vastly increase the number of ostensibly "civilian" American pilots, but this program also had the eventual effect of providing a large flight-ready force of trained pilots for future military action if the need arose.

Other countries had other variants. In some countries, it seemed to be a matter of personal choice if one stayed in combat or helped build the next generation. Even where there was a policy of using skills outside combat, some individuals, e.g. Guy Gibson VC insisted on returning to combat after a year. Both Gibson's successors at 617 Squadron were ordered off "ops" permanently – Leonard Cheshire VC after 102 operations, "Willie" Tait (DSO & 3 Bars) after 101 – reflecting the strain of prolonged operations.

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (and related schemes) as well as training British crew in North America, away from the war, contributed large numbers of aircrew from outside the UK to the forces under RAF operational control. The resulting "Article XV squadrons" nominally part of individual Commonwealth air forces were filled from a pool of mixed nationalities. While RAF Bomber Command let individuals form teams naturally and bomber aircrew were generally heterogeneous in origins, the Canadian government pushed for its bomber aircrew to be organised in one Group for greater recognition – No. 6 Group RCAF.

Logistics Edit

Airfield construction Edit

Arnold correctly anticipated that the U.S. would have to build forward airfields in inhospitable places. Working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers, he created Aviation Engineer Battalions that by 1945 included 118,000 men. Runways, hangars, radar stations, power generators, barracks, gasoline storage tanks, and ordnance dumps had to be built hurriedly on tiny coral islands, mud flats, featureless deserts, dense jungles, or exposed locations still under enemy artillery fire. The heavy construction gear had to be imported, along with the engineers, blueprints, steel-mesh landing mats, prefabricated hangars, aviation fuel, bombs and ammunition, and all necessary supplies. As soon as one project was finished the battalion would load up its gear and move forward to the next challenge, while headquarters inked in a new airfield on the maps. [22]

The engineers opened an entirely new airfield in North Africa every other day for seven straight months. Once when heavy rains along the coast reduced the capacity of old airfields, two companies of Airborne Engineers loaded miniaturized gear into 56 transports, flew a thousand miles to a dry Sahara location, started blasting away, and were ready for the first B-17 24 hours later. Often engineers had to repair and use a captured enemy airfield. The German fields were well-built all-weather operations. [23]

Some of the Japanese island bases, built before the war, had excellent airfields. Most new Japanese installations in the Pacific were ramshackle affairs with poor siting, poor drainage, scant protection, and narrow, bumpy runways. Engineering was a low priority for the offense-minded Japanese, who chronically lacked adequate equipment and imagination. On a few islands, local commanders did improve aircraft shelters and general survivability, as they correctly perceived the danger of coming raids or invasions. [24] In the same theatre the United States Navy's own "construction battalions", collectively named the "Seabees" from the CB acronym adopted on the date of their formation in March 1942, would build over a hundred military airstrips and a significant degree of the military support infrastructure supplying the Pacific "island-hopping" campaign of the Allies during the Pacific war through 1945, as well as elsewhere in the world during the war years.

Tactical Edit

Tactical air power involves gaining control of the airspace over the battlefield, directly supporting ground units (as by attacks on enemy tanks and artillery), and attacking enemy supply lines and airfields. Typically, fighter planes are used to gain air supremacy, and light bombers are used for support missions. [25]

Air supremacy Edit

Tactical air doctrine stated that the primary mission was to turn tactical superiority into complete air supremacy—to totally defeat the enemy air force and obtain control of its air space. This could be done directly through dogfights, and raids on airfields and radar stations, or indirectly by destroying aircraft factories and fuel supplies. Anti-aircraft artillery (called "ack-ack" by the British, "flak" by the Germans, and "Archie" by the World War I USAAS) could also play a role, but it was downgraded by most airmen. The Allies won air supremacy in the Pacific in 1943, and in Europe in 1944. [26] That meant that Allied supplies and reinforcements would get through to the battlefront, but not the enemy's. It meant the Allies could concentrate their strike forces wherever they pleased, and overwhelm the enemy with a preponderance of firepower. This was the basic Allied strategy, and it worked.

One of the most effective demonstrations of air supremacy by the Western Allies over Europe occurred in early 1944, when Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle, who took command of the US 8th Air Force in January 1944, would only a few months later "release" the building force of P-51 Mustangs from their intended mission to closely escort the 8th Air Force's heavy bombers, after getting help from British aviators in selecting the best available aircraft types for the task. The USAAF's Mustang squadrons were now tasked to fly well ahead of the bombers' combat box defensive formations by some 75–100 miles (120–160 km) to basically clear the skies, in the manner of a sizable "fighter sweep" air supremacy mission, of any defensive presence over the Third Reich of the Luftwaffe's Jagdgeschwader single-seat fighter wings. This important change of strategy also coincidentally doomed both the twin-engined Zerstörer heavy fighters and their replacement, heavily armed Focke-Wulf Fw 190A Sturmbock forces used as bomber destroyers, each in their turn. This change in American fighter tactics began to have its most immediate effect with the loss of more and more of the Luftwaffe's Jagdflieger fighter pilot personnel, [27] and fewer bomber losses to the Luftwaffe as 1944 wore on.

Air superiority depended on having the fastest, most maneuverable fighters, in sufficient quantity, based on well-supplied airfields, within range. The RAF demonstrated the importance of speed and maneuverability in the Battle of Britain (1940), when its fast Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane fighters easily riddled the clumsy Stukas as they were pulling out of dives. The race to build the fastest fighter became one of the central themes of World War II.

Once total air supremacy in a theatre was gained the second mission was interdiction of the flow of enemy supplies and reinforcements in a zone five to fifty miles behind the front. Whatever moved had to be exposed to air strikes, or else confined to moonless nights. (Radar was not good enough for nighttime tactical operations against ground targets.) A large fraction of tactical air power focused on this mission.

Close air support Edit

The third and lowest priority (from the AAF viewpoint) mission was "close air support" or direct assistance to ground units on the battlefront which consisted of bombing targets identified by ground forces, and strafing exposed infantry. [28] Airmen disliked the mission because it subordinated the air war to the ground war furthermore, slit trenches, camouflage, and flak guns usually reduced the effectiveness of close air support. "Operation Cobra" in July, 1944, targeted a critical strip of 3,000 acres (1,214 ha) of German strength that held up the US breakthrough out of Normandy. [29] General Omar Bradley, his ground forces stymied, placed his bets on air power. 1,500 heavies, 380 medium bombers and 550 fighter bombers dropped 4,000 tons of high explosives. Bradley was horrified when 77 planes dropped their payloads short of the intended target:

"The ground belched, shook and spewed dirt to the sky. Scores of our troops were hit, their bodies flung from slit trenches. Doughboys were dazed and frightened . A bomb landed squarely on McNair in a slit trench and threw his body sixty feet and mangled it beyond recognition except for the three stars on his collar." [30]

The Germans were stunned senseless, with tanks overturned, telephone wires severed, commanders missing, and a third of their combat troops killed or wounded. The defence line broke J. Lawton Collins rushed his VII Corps forward the Germans retreated in a rout the Battle of France was won air power seemed invincible. However, the sight of a senior colleague killed by error was unnerving, and after the completion of operation Cobra, Army generals were so reluctant to risk "friendly fire" casualties that they often passed over excellent attack opportunities that would be possible only with air support. Infantrymen, on the other hand, were ecstatic about the effectiveness of close air support:

"Air strikes on the way we watch from a top window as P-47s dip in and out of clouds through suddenly erupting strings of Christmas-tree lights [flak], before one speck turns over and drops toward earth in the damnest sight of the Second World War, the dive-bomber attack, the speck snarling, screaming, dropping faster than a stone until it's clearly doomed to smash into the earth, then, past the limits of belief, an impossible flattening beyond houses and trees, an upward arch that makes the eyes hurt, and, as the speck hurtles away, WHOOM, the earth erupts five hundred feet up in swirling black smoke. More specks snarl, dive, scream, two squadrons, eight of them, leaving congealing, combining, whirling pillars of black smoke, lifting trees, houses, vehicles, and, we devoutly hope, bits of Germans. We yell and pound each other's backs. Gods from the clouds this is how you do it! You don't attack painfully across frozen plains, you simply drop in on the enemy and blow them out of existence." [31]

Some forces, especially the United States Marine Corps, emphasized the air-ground team. The airmen, in this approach, also are infantrymen who understand the needs and perspective of the ground forces. There was much more joint air-ground training, and a given air unit might have a long-term relationship with a given ground unit, improving their mutual communications. [32]

In North-West Europe, the Allies used the "taxi-rank" (or "Cab-rank") system for supporting the ground assault. Fighter-bombers, such as the Hawker Typhoon or P-47 Thunderbolt, armed with cannon, bombs and rockets would be in the air at 10,000 ft over the battlefield. When support was required it could be quickly summoned by a ground observer. While often too inaccurate against armoured vehicles, rockets had a psychological effect on troops and were effective against the supply-carrying trucks used to support German tanks.



The war at sea was not characterised by monumental battles, glorious victories and haunting landscapes as was the war on land. The Battle of Jutland was the only full-scale direct action to occur between opposing navies and even this was indecisive. Yet the blockade of supplies to Germany weakened the country, directly contributing to the end of the war, as indeed the U-Boat campaign would have done in reverse had the convoy system not eventually succeeded in saving Britain from starvation. Control of the North Sea meant no less than the difference between independence and invasion.

The war at sea was a test of nerves and ingenuity. Both sides had to master technologies and ways of fighting unimaginable just a few years earlier. It was a marathon of endurance and persistence, often thankless but always critically important.


[1] German Admiral Reinhard Scheer, commander of the High Seas Fleet at the Battle of Jutland, noted this transformation in warfare in the title of his post-war autobiography Vom Segelschiff zum U-Boot [From Sailing Ship to U-boat].

[2] Richard Hough, The Great War at Sea 1914-1918 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983) p.55.

[3] U-Boat comes from the German U-Boot or Unterseeboot, which translates as ‘undersea-boat’.

[4] Richard Compton-Hall, Submarines and the war at sea (London: Macmillan, 1991) p.254.

[5] Julian Thompson, The Imperial War Museum Book of The War at Sea 1914-1918 (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2005) p.326.

[6] Robert K Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (New York: Random House, 2003) p.738.

  • Written by Louise Bruton
  • Louise Bruton is a qualified archivist and information professional. She specialises in cataloguing archival manuscripts and preparing them for digitisation and online publication. She has previously worked on cataloguing the papers of the playwright Willy Russell and on The Full English project, making English folk music manuscripts searchable and freely available online. Louise is currently working at The British Library on the Europeana Collections 1914-1918 project in a similar role.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

Hitler's Big Mistake?: Why Didn't Nazi Germany Build Aircraft Carriers?

Göring had always argued that his planes were being misused in guarding the big ships, and now he had gotten his way. Raeder resigned. In 1945, the Graf Zeppelin was scuttled by the Germans, only to be raised by the Soviets, taken home to Russia, and sunk in pieces during target practice—an ignominious end to Nazi Germany’s aircraft-carrier program.

On June 6, 1944, as the massive Allied naval armada made its way from ports in England across the English Channel to launch the projected D-day invasion at Normandy, a German fleet sortie swept down from its home ports on the North Sea and from occupied Norway. Protected by its covering force of battleships, pocket battleships, destroyers, and schools of deadly U-boats, the heart of this attack force was the quartet of attack aircraft carriers with their flying cargoes of Stuka divebombers and Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter aircraft.

As the Stukas swooped down from the skies on the Allied ships and troop transports, a mighty German naval victory was won, many Allied vessels were sunk, thousands of soldiers’ and sailors’ lives were lost, and the unthinkable happened. The Normandy invasion was repelled.

Roosevelt Loses Re-Election: U.S. Considers Peace Talks

Six months after this battle, in which no Allied carriers were present, President Franklin D. Roosevelt lost his bid for re-election. The new president of the United States, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, announced that his administration would seek a negotiated peace settlement of the war with Germany, but would fight on against Imperial Japan.

Of course, this story is fiction. However, it very well might have happened but for the rivalry of two powerful, strong-willed men, Grand Admiral Dr. Erich Raeder of the Kriegsmarine (Navy) and Reich Marshal Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe (Air Force). The bone of contention between them was the creation of a naval air arm that the admiral wanted and that the air minister was determined to prevent. The closest that Admiral Raeder came to having his way was on December 8, 1938, when the first of a projected four aircraft carrier fleet, the Graf Zeppelin, named for Imperial Germany’s airship designer, Graf (Count) Hugo Zeppelin, was launched by Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler at Kiel’s Germania Shipyards.

This initial vessel, code-named “A,” was to be followed by the launching of “B” on July 1, 1940, with commissioning by December 1941 both “C” and “D” were to follow, and all four were to be in action by July 1944. With the threat of the impending Allied invasion, however, it is not unlikely that Hitler could have speeded up construction had he wanted to, but this was forestalled by a Führer order on January 30, 1943, stopping all capital ship construction.

“Everything That Flies Belongs to Us!”

Raeder had been named the Weimar Republic’s fleet commander back in 1928. As he notes in My Life, his memoirs, “By 1932, we had completely designed, and had in model form, a multi-purpose plane for dropping bombs, mines and torpedoes, as well as a pursuit fighter plane. Also the Navy had developed a promising dive bomber design which was being tested for its intended use later on airplane carriers. The German Works in Kiel had built an effective catapult for shipboard use, and the Navy had under development and in the testing stage an airplane torpedo at the Eckernsford Torpedo Experimental Institute and a 2cm naval gun at the Oerlikon Company in Switzerland.”

Indeed, in 1933 when Nazi Reichstag President Hermann Göring became German minister of aviation in Chancellor Hitler’s first coalition cabinet, the question of creating a third service, the eventual Luftwaffe, was posed. Raeder had been studying this problem for some time. He knew that there was just such a third force in both Fascist Italy and Great Britain, while in Imperial Japan, Republican France, and the United States there were two basic aerial services, an army and a navy air force. Both of Japan’s were destroyed in World War II, while a separate U.S. Air Force was created after the war.

In Nazi Germany, however, Göring held the position that “Everything that flies belongs to us!” thereby pushing the envelope even farther. Not only would there be created the third service, but there would also be no separate air arm for the army, much less for its junior sister service, the navy.

The Power Struggle Between Raeder & Göring

In his memoirs, Raeder notes the differences between himself and Göring that were at the very heart of their power struggle of the first decade of the Third Reich. “Of all the men close to Hitler, however, Göring was the one with whom I had my most violent battles. We were perfect opposites, both personally and ideologically. While he might have been a brave and capable flier in World War I, he lacked all the requisites for command of one of the armed services. He possessed a colossal vanity which … was dangerous because it was combined with a limitless ambition….

“My belief was that Hitler deliberately loaded Göring down with tasks outside his service command in order to prevent the ambitious Marshal from becoming a dangerous political opponent. The natural result was that Göring had so many assignments that he could perform none of them properly.”

The Führer also used this methodology with his Reichsführer (National Leader) of the SS, the sinister Heinrich Himmler, to the same effect.

In My Life, the Grand Admiral devotes a full chapter to the battle for a naval air force, discussing in great detail the wide and varied differences between an air force that was merely protecting ships at sea and a thoroughly trained naval air arm for exclusive use with the Navy. He makes a good, well-stated case. Göring, though, did not see it this way, especially after 1940 when the Luftwaffe was land-based all around the oceans and seas upon which the Navy operated.

Since Göring was the Führer’s designated political successor, this gave him a better chance to gain Hitler’s ear, putting Raeder and his Navy at a distinct disadvantage.

Raeder’s Compromise Solution

For a time, Raeder sought a compromise solution with his rival and fought hard to work something out, but while he was sincere in these efforts, Field Marshal Göring was not. States Raeder, “The original 1935 plan was for 25 squadrons of about 300 planes total, but this force proved all too small. The following year the Navy included an increase to 62 squadrons in its plans, and so notified Göring.”

He replied that he was willing to set up an Air Force Command (Sea) that would be under Raeder’s tactical command, but would remain a Luftwaffe command strategically and in all other ways. This, Raeder declared, was unacceptable. “We held to our contention of 62 air squadrons for naval purposes until 1938, when we finally secured an agreement from Göring that these would be provided in two steps, the last to be completed by 1942.” However, even then the Navy’s request for its own separate air arm was denied.

Still, work proceeded apace at Kiel on the first aircraft carrier of the Third Reich, in hopes that either Göring would change his mind or that Hitler might overrule him. In 1935, the exploratory task of gathering information for such an undertaking had been given to 36-year-old Naval Chief Architect Dr. Wilhelm Hadeler. This followed the June 18th signing of the German-British Fleet Agreement that had allowed the future German Navy to be built up to 35 percent of the Royal Navy’s strength. In this way, it was hoped that a renewed naval race might be avoided, as well as a possible cause for another world war.

Developing the First German Carrier

In terms of aircraft carriers, therefore, Nazi Germany would be allowed 38,500 tons of construction, or two at 19,250 tons each thus were born “A” and “B.” Preliminary determination work had already started on these two vessels during 1933-1934, when the Navy stated that it wanted a vessel that could travel at a speed of 33 knots, carry from 50-60 aircraft, be armed with eight 20.3cm guns, be armored like a light cruiser, and have a water displacement of about 20,000 tons.

Since the German Navy had never had an aircraft carrier in its inventory, Dr. Hadeler started his research from scratch, using as his first role models the British Royal Navy carriers Courageous, Glorious, and Furious, as well as the Japanese carrier Akagi, which was later used in the Pearl Harbor attack.

Ironically, the German Navy saw carriers as heavily armed escort ships for its capital vessels until well after both Taranto and Pearl Harbor had demonstrated that they, and not the battlewagons and cruisers, were indeed the sea weapons of the future. In 1935, however, Dr. Hadeler rejected both the British and Japanese designs and decided instead to build a German aircraft carrier with a longer flight deck. After a trip to Japan to review the blueprints of the Akagi, it was decided to add a third and central elevator with which to transport the aircraft to the flight deck. Once there, they would be catapulted into space and over the sea, not taking off under their own power, as was the case with the aircraft of other navies’ carriers.

The Forgotten Fight Against Fascism

In 1935, coalitions formed The Popular Front to oppose the spread of fascism.

By William Loren Katz

In late 1944 as a high school senior I rushed off to a U.S. Navy recruiting station ready to take on world fascism. Cooler heads insisted I wait until my graduation in June. After boot camp I served in “The Pacific Theater” — Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Hawaii, Saipan, Japan, and the China Sea.

Anyone who has gone through school in the United States knows that history textbooks devote a lot of attention to the so-called “Good War”: World War II. A typical textbook, Holt McDougal’s The Americans, includes 61 pages covering the buildup to World War II and the war itself. Today’s texts acknowledge “blemishes” like the internment of Japanese Americans, but the texts either ignore or gloss over the fact that for almost a decade, during the earliest fascist invasions of Asia, Africa, and Europe, the Western democracies encouraged rather than fought Hitler and Mussolini, and sometimes gave them material aid.

From Hitler’s rise to power, the governments of England and France, with the United States following their lead, never tried to prevent, slow, or even warn of the fascist danger. They started by greeting Japan’s attack on Manchuria with disapproving noises, and continued to trade with Japan. It was a prelude to Japan’s 1937 invasion of China.

Haile Selassie addressing the League of Nations, Geneva, 1936.

Mussolini, seeking an “Italian Empire” in Africa, threw his army and air force against Ethiopia in October 1935. Fascist planes bombed and dropped poison gas on villages. Emperor Haile Selassie turned to the League of Nations and speaking in his native Amharic described fascist air and chemical attacks on a people “without arms, without resources.” “Collective security,” he insisted, “is the very existence of the League of Nations,” and warned “international morality” is “at stake.” When Selassie said, “God and history will remember your judgment,” governments shrugged.

However, in the midst of a worldwide “Great Depression,” citizens in the distant United States were aroused to help Ethiopia. Black men trained for military action—an estimated 8,000 in Chicago, 5,000 in Detroit, 2,000 in Kansas City.

In New York City, where a thousand men drilled, nurse Salaria Kea of Harlem Hospital collected funds that sent a 75-bed hospital and two tons of medical supplies to Ethiopia. W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson addressed a “Harlem League Against War and Fascism” rally and A. Philip Randolph linked Mussolini’s invasion to “the terrible repression of black people in the United States.” A people’s march for Ethiopia in Harlem drew 25,000 African Americans and anti-fascist Italian Americans.

Oliver Law, a commander of the Lincoln Brigade.

In Chicago on Aug. 31, 1935, as the fascist noose on Ethiopia tightened, Oliver Law, a black Communist from Texas, organized a protest rally in defiance of a ban by Mayor Edward J. Kelly. Ten thousand people gathered and so did 2,000 police. Law began to speak from a rooftop, and was arrested. Then one speaker after another appeared on different rooftops, to shout their anti-fascist messages, and all six were arrested.

By May 1936 before many volunteers or help could reach Ethiopia, Mussolini triumphed and Haile Selassie fled into exile. The Americans devotes a puny two paragraphs of its 61 pages of war coverage to this pre-Pearl Harbor conflict. And the drama of democracy versus fascism in Spain merits another whispered two paragraphs in The Americans.

March in support of Ethiopia.

In July 1936 pro-fascist Francisco Franco and other Spanish generals in Morocco launched a military coup against Spain’s new Republican “Popular Front” government. By early August, Hitler and Mussolini provided vital assistance. In the world’s first airlift, Nazi Germany dispatched 40 Luftwaffe Junker and transport planes to ferry Franco’s army from Morocco to Seville, Spain. Italy’s fleet in the Mediterranean sank ships carrying aid or volunteers to Republican Spain, and 50,000 to 100,000 Italian fascist troops began to arrive in Spain. Hitler and Mussolini had internationalized a civil war—and revealed fascism’s global intentions.

But one of the first lessons learned from Spain was fascist aggressors had nothing to fear from the Western democracies. The Luftwaffe destroyed cities such as Gernika in the Basque region of Spain, and Nazi gestapo agents interrogated Republican prisoners. But English and French officials, and their wealthy corporations with financial ties to Nazi Germany, greeted the fascist march with a shrug, quiet appreciation, or offers of cooperation. In England, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin prodded Germany and Italy to march east toward the Soviet Union. The British ambassador to Spain told the U.S. ambassador, “I hope they send in enough Germans to finish the war.”

The Nazi Luftwaffe overhead, Franco’s legions rolled toward Madrid and Franco expected a fast victory. But at the gates of Madrid everything changed. Under the slogan “They shall not pass,” members of unions and political and citizen groups formed military units and headed toward the front carrying lunch and a rifle. Madrid’s women, wearing pants and carrying rifles, took part in early skirmishes. Other women ran the first quartermaster corps.

People’s Olympiad was planned to protest the Nazi Olympics.

A scattering of foreign volunteers began to arrive: Jewish and other refugees fleeing Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy, some British machine gunners, and athletes fresh from an anti-Nazi Olympics in Barcelona.

By November the volunteer rush became a torrent: An estimated 40,000 men and women from 53 nations left home to defend the Republic. For the only time in history, a volunteer force of men and women from all over the world came together to fight for an ideal: democracy. The volunteers brought a message that ordinary people could resist fascist militarism.

Though most volunteers had little military experience, they hoped their commitment, courage, and sacrifice would persuade the democratic governments to unite against the fascist march, and head off a new world war.

But the Western governments ignored Spain’s plea for “collective security.” And some countries outlawed travel to Spain. France closed its border to Spain so volunteers faced arrest and had to scale the Pyrenees at night. England formed a Non-Intervention Committee of 26 nations that blocked aid to the Republican government, but not to Franco’s rebels.

U.S. policy followed England and France. The United States stamped passports “Not Valid for Spain.” The State Department tried to prevent medical supplies and doctors from reaching Spain. The Texas Oil Company sent almost 2 million tons of oil, most of Franco’s oil needs. Four-fifths of rebel trucks came from Ford, General Motors, and Studebaker. U.S. media outlets, isolationist and wealthy groups, and the Catholic Church cheered Franco’s fight against “Godless Communism.”

Members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Source: Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.

In the United States some 2,800 young men and women of different races and backgrounds formed the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade.” Seamen and students, farmers and professors, they hoped that their bravery could turn the tide, or at last alert the world to the fascist drive for world domination. Most made their way to Spain illegally as “tourists” visiting France.

In a time of massive unemployment, lynching, segregation, and discrimination, 90 of the volunteers were African American. “Ethiopia and Spain are our fight,” said James Yates, who fled Mississippi. The United States had only five licensed African American pilots, and two came to join the Republic’s tiny air force (one brought down two German and three Italian planes).

Most of the African American volunteers had marched with white radicals to protest lynching, segregation, and racism, and to demand relief and jobs during the Great Depression. These men and women of color—one was nurse Salaria Kea—formed the first integrated U.S. army. Oliver Law became an early commander of the Lincoln Brigade.

Salaria Kea raised money to send medical supplies to Ethiopia and was a nurse in the Lincoln Brigades.

The brave young men and women of the Lincoln and other International Brigades slowed but did not stop fascism. In 1938, fascism’s overwhelming land, sea, and air power defeated the Republic. Many volunteers had died, including half of the Americans, and others suffered serious wounds.

What is remembered as World War II began the next year in 1939, when Germany attacked Poland. It would take a massive, multinational effort to defeat Hitler, Mussolini, and Imperial Japan, and cost tens of millions of lives.

In 1945, world fascism was finally defeated. But for a crucial decade the democracies did not oppose and often emboldened the fascist advance into Manchuria and China, Ethiopia and Spain. But students today don’t learn this. Instead, texts present World War II as an inevitability and the Allies as anti-fascists and saviors of democracy. A fuller history of the failure of the United States to fight fascism at its outset—and even its multifaceted support of fascism—would help students rethink this supposed inevitability. Today’s students deserve more than a few textbook paragraphs describing the fight against fascism before 1939 while the governments of the United States, England, and France encouraged its aggressions.

This article is part of the Zinn Education Project’s If We Knew Our History series.

© 2014 The Zinn Education Project, a project of Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

Image Credits
  • March, protests, and “Defend Ethiopia”: Film stills from The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Spanish Civil War
  • Haile Selassie addressing the League of Nations: Source unknown.
  • People’s Olympiad poster: University of Warwick Library Digital Collections.
  • Lincoln Brigade members, Salaria Kea, and Oliver Law: Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives.

William Loren Katz is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, The Lincoln Brigade: A Picture History (with Marc Crawford), and 40 other books on African American history, including many for young adults.

Related Resources

The Lincoln Brigade: A Picture History

Book – Non-fiction. By William Loren Katz and Marc Crawford. 2013.
Interviews, documents, and photos from the first fully integrated United States army, who volunteered to help Spain defend its democracy against fascism.

Robeson in Spain

Book – Non-fiction. By The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. 2009.
Booklet in graphic novel format on Paul Robeson’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War.

Fred Lucas: Lincoln Brigadista and 1931 Hunger Marcher

On March 6, 2014, Kianga Lucas commented on the Zinn Education Project’s Facebook post about the Lincoln Brigades:

“Wonderful! My grandfather also fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. These men and women were incredibly brave and sacrificed a lot.”

We asked Ms. Lucas for more information about her grandfather and here is the people’s history that she shared.

Although we know a great deal about the events surrounding Hitler's "Halt Order" at Dunkirk, the truth is that the reasons behind it are not completely understood by historians, even now.

It is a mistake, however, to think that the German army just stood around, watching the British Expeditionary Force being evacuated. They were fighting to reach the beaches the entire time the Allies were fighting to get off them. German artillery and aircraft shelled, bombed and strafed the troops on the beaches there without mercy.

Adolf Hitler's "Halt Order" actually just confirmed an order given by General Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A (the main German force fighting in western France). In turn, von Rundstedt had issued his order at the request of his tank unit commander, who had lost almost 50% of his armoured forces and wanted to regroup. However, Hitler's "Halt Order" was more specific than von Rundstedt's. It specified that the line of Lens–Bethune–Saint-Omer–Gravelines "will not be passed".

This meant that some of the more advanced German units actually withdrew from positions that they had already taken. In particular, General Wilhelm von Thoma, Chief of the tank section of the Army High Command, was with the leading tanks near Bergues, and could look down into Dunkirk. He sent radio messages, asking to be allowed to push on, but was rebuffed.

It is true that the tanks were in a commanding position, but they were low on fuel, and without infantry support. They were also within range of British naval guns in the channel. Even a Panzerkampfwagen IV (PzKpfw IV) would be outmatched by a 4.5 inch naval shell! The tanks withdrew as ordered.

Hitler's own experiences in the trenches of the First World War were almost certainly a factor. By 24 May the troops had been fighting continuously for nearly a fortnight. Hitler knew how exhausting that could be.

Also, it is certainly true that the ground around the Dunkirk pocket, with its network of canals, was not ideal for tanks. The infantry needed time to catch up. General Franz Halder wrote in his diary:

"The Führer is terribly nervous. Afraid to take any chances."

General Halder's diary is also the source of the claim that Goering had persuaded Hitler to allow his Luftwaffe to finish off the encircled troops. His diary entry for 24 May states:

Finishing off the encircled enemy army is to be left to Air Force!

Halder's diaries have been translated and digitised, with the relevant entries for 24 May 1940 in Volume IV.

General Paul von Kleist met Hitler on the airfield at Cambrai a few days afterwards. He is supposed to have remarked that a great opportunity had been lost at Dunkirk. Hitler apparently replied:

"That may be so. But I did not want to send the tanks into the Flanders marshes".

There was also the belief among the German High Command that the war was already effectively won. A handwritten note from Major-General Alfred Jodl, the deputy chief of Hitler's planning staff still survives. It is dated 28 May and was written at Führer Headquarters to the labour minister Robert Ley. It states:

"Most esteemed Labour Führer of the Reich! Everything that has happened since May 10 seems even to us, who had indestructible faith in our success, like a dream. In a few days four fifths of the English Expeditionary Army and a great part of the best mobile French troops will be destroyed or captured. The next blow is ready to strike, and we can execute it at a ratio of 2:1, which has hitherto never been granted to a German field commander. "

After the war, perhaps not surprisingly, German generals vociferously blamed Hitler for the British "miracle" at Dunkirk. Even von Rundstedt placed the whole debacle at Hitler’s feet. This has led to the many theories about why Hitler had "allowed" the BEF to escape:

  • He wanted to secure better peace terms with Britain and look like a magnanimous gentleman (rather than a psychotic despot).
  • He needed the help of the British in the coming struggle against Communism.
  • Hitler sought to avoid killing Anglo-Saxons, whom he believed were "superior" to his other enemies.
  • .

These are, of course all utter nonsense and have been dismissed by all credible historians. Sadly, they still seem to be regularly trotted out by assorted Hitler apologists like David Irving, despite all the surviving evidence that should have condemned them to the dustbin of history years ago.

The truth is much simpler. Hitler didn't entirely trust his army commanders and was being cautious. He, together with his military commanders, believed that he had time to regroup his forces and attack with the combination of infantry, artillery, armour, and air power that had already brought the German army success in France. The details of that build-up are set out in General Halder's diaries.

Even after the "Stop Order" was issued to the army on 24 May, the Luftwaffe continued to attack the troops on the beach at Dunkirk. Whether this was to allow Goering's Luftwaffe the final "glory" of defeating the BEF remains just speculation.

We should also remember that on 24 May the surrender of France was not yet assured. Neither Hitler, nor his high command, were prepared to risk unnecessary losses (as they saw it) that might put the next phase of their operation in jeopardy.

It's easy to ask these questions after the fact, but a primary reason was that what we now know as the Miracle of Dunkirk was basically unthinkable.

It is easy to forget that in reaching the coast, and cutting the Allied line in two, the Germans had already won a great, practically unthinkable victory. Their victorious divisions, particularly armored units, were scattered, considered overextended, and needed time to be "realigned." One can say that the best use of these troops was to pile on, pursue the enemy into the ground, etc. but that would not have been "easy." It would have been a "brawl, the kind of fighting that the Germans disliked, with British naval gunfire taking part, as a commenter pointed out. If the Germans had managed to slaughter 300,000 troops in this way, they would probably have taken casualties of a significant fraction of this, say 75,000-100,000 men. There might even have been embarrassing losses of key units or commanders. A victory that cost the life of say, Heinz Guderian, might have been very "bittersweet," and had us asking why the Germans didn't "hold up."

Nor was it really the German way. They were winning, and planned to win, but in a more organized fashion, with armor, infantry, artillery and airpower in alignment (although that gave the enemy a chance to reorganize as well). And speaking of airpower, that was supposed to play a key role in 1) blocking retreat and 2) actual annihilation. Much to a lot of people's surprise, it did neither.

The original British hope was evacuate 45,000 men over two days. In fact, they evacuated 338,226 men over a period of eight days. This was due to the efforts not only of the regular navy, but of "little ships," civilian motor boats, pleasure craft, etc. In fact, the port was blocked and the big ships could not get close enough to shore to embark many soldiers, so the smaller ships did the actual ferrying of these men. A combined military-civilian effort involving a total of almost 1000 ships of this kind had never been seen in the history of warfare.

Another imponderable factor was the effect of the good weather during the evacuation as pointed out by a commenter. "Forecasts" were probably available to both sides beforehand, and the Germans probably thought that clear skies would help their bombers. It turned out to help the numerous ships far more.

Then, Hitler was hoping for an early cease-fire/peace with Great Britain, and would therefore rather "capture" 300,000 or so British soldiers than slaughter an equivalent number. Bombing them would have fallen under the "capture" strategy during the same campaign, German bombers that had run out of bombs terrorized French soldiers just by remaining overhead.

Basically, the Germans thought that they could take their time, and minimize their losses and disorganization for the battle with the remaining French forces, while capturing the bulk of the British army. They could not envision not only all the trapped Britishers but almost half of the French in the pocket escaping. The conventional wisdom was that the British could rescue their highest officers, (as the Germans did from say North Africa), but the rest of the men, including most of the non-coms and junior officers, would be stranded.

11 Answers 11

Turkey, like Spain and Sweden, was a country that "served the purpose" for Germany during World War II without being attacked. Specifically, Turkey was a major supplier of chrome, a key war material, both in her own right, and through "transshipments" from modern Rhodesia and South Africa. A hostile Turkey might not have been as good a supplier of such materials.

Turkey would also have been a tough nut to crack militarily, given her hilly terrain (difficult tank country), and martial traditions, most recently displayed in World War I with a defeat of a British invasion of Gallipoli. Given the limitations of the German advance in Russia in 1941, if they had continued from the Balkans into Turkey, that might be all that they would have gotten that year, giving Russia (who was rapidly re-arming and fortifying her frontiers) another year to prepare for war.

Finally, Turkey had been an ally of Germany in World War I, and Germany had some hopes of winning her over, e.g. through a successful campaign in Russia, as she had with Hungary,and Bulgaria her other World War I allies.

As in the case of Spain and Sweden, Germany felt her interests were better served by Turkey as a benevolent "neutral," as opposed to an outright enemy.

I've had similar questions over the years, and did some research on this. Let me admit, though, my interest comes from a different angle. I was originally thinking why didn't the USSR invade Turkey somewhere around 1939 - 1941?

But I will try to answer your question about why Germany didn't do it.

There's a phrase I know that goes something like this: Good generals study tactics, but really good generals study logistics. So let's have a look at a topographical map of Turkey (click for higher resolution):

As you can see, it's very mountainous. In that respect, it's similar to Afghanistan. A war here would be very different from the war in flat East Europe. That does not mean it's impossible, but it would take a lot longer than normal.

Turkey's area is about 783 thousand square kilometers (303 thousand square miles). This would actually be the 2nd largest country in Europe, if you considered all of Turkey to be part of Europe. (The largest, of course, is Russia---even if you only consider EuroRussia.)

Population of Turkey in 1940: 17.8 million. From this we can estimate that the number of males aged 15 to 35 is about 2.37 million.

From the mountainous regions, you would think logistics would be a nightmare too. However, the immediate question is, were there any railways in Turkey around 1940?

And the answer is yes. I found a great site, trainsofturkey.com, that has a lot of historical info on this.

First the 1914 map:

This is actually not too bad. If you can blockade the coasts and use the pink railway, you could surround practically the whole country.

From some more data and maps on that site, especially this table, I was able to construct a map to show what railways existed in 1941:

Dark Red lines I confirmed existed by 1941. Bright Red lines I could not confirm exist by 1941. Even so, you can see that there is a decent network of railways throughout most of Turkey.

Unfortunately, I could not find any data about which lines, if any, were double-track (2 lanes dedicated for 2 directions). I could not find what gauge these railways are, but I think they're almost certainly the "Standard Gauge" (1435 mm) used by Britain, France, Germany, and many other places. But probably, the tan line in the northeast is Russian Gauge (1524 mm).

The point of those rail maps is to show that, theoretically, logistics is not as bad as it might seem from the topological map. This is of course contigent on having access to those railways, the rolling stock, and not being interfered with by the British Navy, for example. We'll get to those again soon.

We also need to know the state of Turkey's military at this time. For this I rely on Wikipedia's Military History of Turkey. It does not appear comparable to Germany's military, nor to Russia's military for that matter.

Finally, we need to know Turkey's economic role in the war. AFAIK, the only economic product of importance was Chromium. Chrome is an important alloy for stainless steel. Without it, your steel would rust. I could not find maps of historical chrome mines in Turkey, so I don't know exactly where those mines were located.

So the most logical invasion plan would probably go something like this:

Invade Thrace (European Turkey, west of the Bosphorus) to set up airbases and control the Bosphorus Strait.

Blockade and bombard the coastal cities and towns. This would require sea power, which Germany didn't have in this part of the world. Britain had almost all the sea power in the European Theater, and note that Cyprus has a major British Naval Base right next door.

Alternatively, use air power to bomb the coastal cities/towns and ports. This is no small matter. Assuming your airbases are only in Greece, Bulgaria, and Crete, the distances involved probably mean that only the west half of the coast is feasible to bomb.

Anyway, somehow clear a beachead and get access to at least one railway, I would guess at Istanbul or Samsum. Then import rolling stock to move your army into the interior. If Germany could get access to a railway, this is feasible. Germany could certainly produce its own rolling stock (train engines, train cars, etc.), and there appears to be a rail connection to Istanbul from Greece or Bulgaria.

Fight your way in along the railways. Set up army bases and airbases along the railways. Even if the railways are one lane only, I believe this is feasible. I'm pretty sure the Russian Civil War, at least, saw some heavy fighting on single-lane tracks with armored train cars. Another matter is sabatoge (blowing up tracks or trains). From what I've read, however, track can be repaired in less than a day when you're prepared for it (bring repair equipment on your train), and clearing a wreck takes maybe a day too. I believe Russian practice in WW2 was to put a dummy car at the front of a train to take the brunt of any mines anyway.

Preferably, invade the valleys around Adana and Iskendrun to get access to the relatively flat lands on the Syrian Border. This will cut off access routes. Remember, Syria became part of Vichy France but then was retaken by the allies in summer of 1941, along with Iraq right before it.

So why didn't Germany do this?

In some sense, they were alreadying trying to access the Middle East or Transcaucasus, but through Africa, presumably because the terrain was easier.

Turkey was a neutral supplier of Chrome and historically had good relations with Germany (like in WW1). Keep in mind that Spain, Portugal, and Sweden were also neutral suppliers of critical materials. If Germany invaded Turkey, those others would get pretty nervous and may have more incentive to join the Allies.

Something else to note: The Molotov-Ribbentropt Pact agreed that the USSR would annex all of Finland, even though Finland had important nickel mines. This shows that Germany was willing to allow important resources in future enemy hands, so by that reasoning, they should be perfectly willig to allow important resources in neutral hands too.

Russia was the bigger threat---much, much bigger---and conquering it would give Germany a lot more than Chrome. In fact, we should look at the order of conquest that Hitler did, or tried to do: Poland, Denmark and Norway, France and Benelux, Britain, Southeast Europe, Russia, The End. Most of those were real threats. Turkey was not a threat.

If Germany invaded Turkey, Britain would almost certainly ship in war supplies. Turkey would almost certainly allow British troops to come and help them defend. This would probably include aircraft too, and the Battle of Britain and the Blitz were aerial defeats of the Luftwaffe by the Royal Air Force. Britain' Navy would almost certainly secure most of the coast, with the exception of the Black Sea. Britain could resupply Turkey indefinitely as long as Convoys kept coming from America and Canada.

When Germany conquered the Balkan Peninsula, it was a very bloody victory. The British were helping Greece at the time, ensuring large casualties for the Germans. They could expect more of the same if they tried it in Turkey.

When USSR invaded Finland in 1939, they did not succeed. This made Finland lean towards the Axis, and they allowed Nazi troops into Finland. Hitler probably did not want to risk such a thing happening in reverse in Turkey.

So to sum up: Invading Turkey could only be realistically considered if Germany could somehow do it "one at a time" like they did with Czechoslovakia and Poland. Even then it would have cost a lot of casualities and time. By 1940, the gig was up and Britain was at war with Germany.

The bigger threat was Russia, and Hitler actually believed Russia would die by the end of 1941, giving him access to oil in the transcaucasus. No need to go after non-threats unless somehow you knew they were about to side with the allies. Turkey was pretty committed to neutrality, and German intelligence probably knew this.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert in war or geopolitics. But I have read a lot about Germany and Russia in WW2, and their decision-making.

Reaching the Middle eastern Oilfields which are on the Persian Gulf is a lot harder than it looks, and getting the Oil back even harder. The railways don't go all the way and the Turkish railways were pretty low volume. Shipping just forget that the Axis dint have the tankers and RN would just sink them (too many bases not enough escorts). To rail the Oil back to Germany, the problems are no rails and the years it would take to build them, and the lack of rolling stock and the years it would take it build them. Going for the middle eastern oil would require years of investment before any return would be realised. Berlin Moscow 1836km, Berlin Stalingrad 2783km, Berlin to Baku 3066km, Berlin Basrah 3709km.

Turkey has a large badly equipped army. Given large Allied support the campaign could drag on for quite some time, the Turks are pretty stubborn and can't see them rolling over just because the Germans captured Istanbul and Ankara, the country is pretty hard work logistically and the Germans would struggle to get their power to ground (they have a large army but only a small force cane supplied and maintained in turkey)

The Logistics are much more difficult than first appears.

Hitler wasn't interested in Turkey in itself, but let's analyse this option as a means to an end.

Hitler went to war as he wanted "Lebensraum" for his people, literally, "living room" and for that he needed Russia, specifically the Ukraine and European Russia.

Turkey did not offer this, it's a difficult country to move around with poor (at the time) infrastructure and logistics.

However, it could offer some options for getting to the Middle East and the oil rich Caucuses.

The trouble is that with the relatively strong (compared to Greece and Yugoslavia) Turkish armed forces, coupled with poor road and rail links, it would have taken the Germans a long time and a lot of their firepower to prevail. This would have given the Russians more time to modernise and prepare for the inevitable German invasion so it was never a viable option, although I am sure Hitler would have considered it.

If you look at it on a cost to benefit analysis then it's simply not worthwhile. Also Germany wasn't having problems with oil at this stage of the war (1940-1941), shortages only became a pressing issue from 1942 onwards and not critical until 1943 or even 1944. Once the invasion of Russia had been launched Germany didn't have the chance or the forces spare to invade anyone else, they had their hands full!

In my opinion an invasion of Turkey would have put Barbarossa back until 1942 at least and tied down a lot of German forces after that as there would have likely been a lot of partisan/guerilla forces continuing to fight even after Turkey officially surrendered. Invading Russia in 1942 would have been harder than in 1941 with all those extra T-34s for a start!

Had Hitler's plan to conquer both the Caucasus (part of Operation Barbarossa) and British-occupied Palestine (through Rommel) worked, Germany's intent was to link up both forces through Turkey. If Turkey would not have given its consent to German troop movements across its territory, then probably Germany would have attacked Turkey. Both German campaigns failed however the Caucasus wasn't conquered and Rommel was stopped by the British at El Alamein.

Apparently the German army made plans (or considered trying) to at least base armies in Anatolia (roughly Asian Turkey) and move into the Middle East. However, the idea was to do so after Russia was defeated, and we know how well that went. The purpose was to (some extent) get Iranian oil, but more importantly to harass the British Empire where it was accessible from land. (A previous move in this direction was made earlier, when there was a German-inspired revolt in British Iraq and an attempt to hold Vichy Syria for the Reich, but these both failed). I can't tell if the German army would be 'allowed' into Turkey or just would move there. Here's a quote, from The Wages of Destruction, the Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (Adam Tooze), p. 441.

As far as the German army was concerned, the chief priorities were tanks and explosives. Despite the enormous scale of operation Barbarossa, the German army shared the view that the ultimate military enemies of the Third Reich were Britain and the United States. Furthermore, the army anticipated that after victory in the East it would struggle to assert itself against the rival claims of the Luftwaffe and the navy. As an alternative to the air and naval war, the army's staff therefore devised a variety of operations through which it might strike at the British Empire in Western Asia. Once the Soviet Union had been defeated, powerful armored columns would be launched into the Middle East and northern India from bases in Libya, Anatolia and the Caucasus. To deliver this death blow, the Generals dreamed of a vast fleet of 36 Panzer divisions, 15,000 strong. An internal planning document produced by the army in May 1941 called for the production of almost 40,000 tanks and 130,000 half-tracks over the next three years. These schemes for a Eurasian war on a scale not seen since Alexander the Great have generally been dismissed as little more than thought-experiments. In fact, however, tank production by the end of the war comfortably exceeded the quantities specified in the army's Mesopotamian fantasy. And this increase in production was only possible because the army's post-Barbarossa planning did not remain on paper. In 1941 hundreds of millions of Reichsmarks were invested in the tank industry. In Kassel, Henschel & Sohn added almost a hundred thousand square meters of new floor space. A gigantic new plant, the Nibelungen works, was opened an Sankt Valentin, Austria, and two new factories - Vomag at Plauen and the Maschinenfabrik Niedersachsen - were converted to tank production. The year 1941 also saw an important shift in technological terms. Germany finally abandoned large-scale production of obsolete light tanks and concentrated all available energies on the medium tank designs that were to see the Wehrmacht through to the summer of 1943.

2 Reasons: 1. Had to do with the early attitude of the Nazis towards moving the German Jews to Palestina. A friendly Turkey would serve the purpose as a large guardian state to keep Palestina in check.

2. Turkey was a muslim state and Hitler sought to galvanize the muslim world against the Jews - the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem would become one of Hitler's greatest allies in the region.

There is also a third, unconfirmed reason: Hitler, having been a soldier in WW1, still saw Turkey as a potential ally as they had been previously. But since the Turkish army was pretty much in a useless state, he abandoned the ally-idea swiftly into the war and maintained only his own fond memories. By the time he would have considered invading Turkey as the Italians were useless, he had already become too entangled in the Soviet Union.

An interesting fact was that Turkey actually proposed a tripartite alliance against German expansin at Balkans between Turkey, the USSR and Britain. They proposed to attack Germany in case they invaded Romania.

But after Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was concluded such alliance became infeasible. The British proposed Turkey to make a bilateral treaty but Turkey replied that without USSR such alliance is worthless.

Germany on the other hand strived to win Turkey in their alliance and exerted considerable pressure on her. For instance, they refused to ship the weapons purchased by Turkey from German plants and to return the paid money. As a result, Turkey was quite outraged, and the British shipped similar weapons to Turkey for free.

I don't mean to contradict any of the existing answers to this question or to offer a comprehensive answer myself. Military and logistical issues would have certainly been factors, just like the Italians' failures in Greece and the Balkans and Germany's need to devote resources to those areas to back up the Italian troops.

But I think Hitler's own personal interest in Kemal Ataturk is important to consider. Maybe it's not a bad analogy to say that Hitler considered Ataturk a sort of Turkish kindred spirit in that he wanted to reform and modernize his own nation, once a formerly great empire that had recently been defeated and minimized, rebuilding it in his own image. This is basically what Hitler was attempting in Germany.

One reason the Germans didn't try to go through Turkey could be Hitler's interest in Ataturk.

Hitler actually wanted his generals to attack and capture Turkey but his generals changed his mind. They could capture Istanbul but that's it. if German army entered Anatolia, they would be annihilated in a matter of weeks. Turks proved how they fight by beating England and France in Dardanelles. after 8 months of fierce fighting, Brits had to run away leaving 125.000 dead soldiers behind.

55k, with British deaths being only a component. &ndash Semaphore ♦ Aug 8 '15 at 6:00

The simple answer is that while Hitler had some talents in public speaking and human manipulation, he was not very bright. There is overwhelming evidence that shows he underestimated Russian military capabilities and thought it would be easy to get to the oil fields in Baku. If he would have known it was going to be nearly as difficult as it was I am sure he and his military planners would have chosen to invaded Turkey for the simple reasons that once Turkey was conquered Baku would be in immediate striking distance over the Turkish border, air support and supplies lines would be much closer and invading Turkey could have been done without directly provoke Russia until he was finally ready to strike out toward Baku. I think it is with the benefit of history that many tacticians would see Turkey as the best choice today. History also shows that no agreement or pact was responsible for Hitler's failure to invade Turkey because Hitler did not care about these: he had one with Russia and what happened?

The evidence that Hitler was not bright and delusional is clear when you look at the contradictions in his own "aryan" measures. There is considerable evidence that Slavs are descendants of viking traders that created trade routes into the western Russian river networks. The circumstantial evidence this is true is literally written all over the faces of vast numbers of Russians and other Slavs: Many are blonde haired and blue eyed. I think the bizarre thing about Hitler's ethnics opinions is that the Slavs, who have large numbers of people that fit Hitler's Aryan physical guidelines, were considered inferior and not Aryan, but dark complexioned people like those in southern Italy (who have Africa Moor blood in them) ARE Aryan. This is just one example of how Hitler's thinking was illogical even for a bigot. It seems pretty clear that if Hitler was smart enough to see that Slavs are the same degree away from his perfect Aryan and a German is and he would have allowed the Ukrainians (especially) to have their own country (under gentle German control, similar to Norway) that the Ukrainian would have fought with Germany against Russia and Germany would had a significantly increased chance of defeating Russia. Hell, if Stalin was in Hitler's place he would have given Ukraine independence, had them help him beat Stalin, THEN killed all the Ukrainian and took their land. This shows Hitler was not even good at treachery!

There is so much wrong with the above post: Russian did not invade Finland because it was a tradition to do so. They did it because they were interested in the nickel rich area they eventually took over. Also, Finnish is in the "Urgic" language branch with Hungarian, so is not a single unrelated language like Basque.

Hitler invaded the Ukraine instead of Spain not only because it has been known for centuries as some of the most coveted and rich farm land in Europe, but also because it was relatively sparsely inhabited, vast, and uniquely unexploited/uncultivated.

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